On Tuesday, San Francisco voters will decide whether to oust three progressive school board members in an unprecedented recall election sparked in part because of the district’s slow reopening of schools during COVID-19, and its $125 million budget deficit.
But some parents and educators are calling the effort a power grab by billionaires and right-leaning Silicon Valley investors, some of whom champion charter schools or oppose post-vaccine mask mandates. The campaign, which kicked off early last year with two organizers appearing on conservative firebrand Glenn Beck's radio show, targets board members Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins.
“Everyone who is following this campaign knows that billionaires are trying to buy out public education outright,” Frank Lara, executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said in one anti-recall advertisement on social media.
“We know what this campaign is about—this campaign, just based on the campaign donations, is about the privatization of San Francisco public schools,” Lara added in the video which ended with the slogan: “Voters’ voices, not billionaires’ bucks.”
Brandee Marckmann, the mother of a fourth-grader who will vote “no” in the recall election, told The Daily Beast that she was shocked when she began following the money trail connected to the drive, which will cost taxpayers $3 million.
“My school has bake sales to raise money for the PTA,” Marckmann said. “I guess I get really suspicious when billionaires try to come in and overturn the results of democratic elections.”
“San Francisco school boards should not be for sale,” she added.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Collins said that voters should be aware of who is behind the recall and what’s at stake. “When I ran in 2018, I raised $40,000 with a $500-per-person limit,” Collins said on Monday. “But this recall does not have campaign finance limits like regular elections.”
“All of the parents and educators that are fighting against the recall are volunteers,” Collins added. “We’re fighting against a machine that is a well-funded machine of paid political consultants, who even if the recall doesn’t win, they will be winning because they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, pro-recall organizers raised more than $1.9 million since last February, while the opposition only took in $86,000—$47,000 of which went to Moliga’s fight to stay in office. (Local TV station KQED put the recall campaign’s cost in perspective: “The 38 candidates who ran for school board in San Francisco across four elections, from 2016 to 2020, collectively spent $1.05 million.”)
Campaign finance records reveal the recall’s efforts raked in a total of nearly $400,000 from billionaire Arthur Rock, an early investor in Intel and Apple; $74,500 from former PayPal COO and multimillionaire David Sacks, who also funded the failed recall election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom; and $25,099 from venture capitalist Garry Tan.
Records show Rock donated $49,500 to “Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins, & Moliga” and $350,000 to “Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez, and Moliga.” (Tan donated a total of $5,000 to this latter group.) Rock, 95, has also infused cash into school board races in Oakland, Los Angeles, and beyond over the years, backing pro-charter school candidates. He also funds the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Since last year, the “Concerned Parents” committee received $468,800 from the PAC Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy, whose major contributors include billionaire school-choice advocate William Oberndorf, John Pritzker, Steven Merrill, and Michael Mortiz.
“Concerned Parents” was founded in November by Todd David, a local political operative who runs the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “Between the two committees there’s over 1,700 individual donations,” David recently told Courthouse News. “It’s a gigantic group of people who are financially supporting the recall.”
Last February, Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj launched the first recall group. In an interview with The Daily Beast, the couple downplayed the power of billionaire funds in the cause.
“We haven’t even spoken with Arthur Rock, who has been our biggest donor,” Looijen said, adding that some observers “think a lot of these things are astroturf organizations created by billionaires, but we’re actually the opposite.”
“We started out with so much broad support from the community that we got hundreds of small donations to start this thing off,” she said.
“What’s at stake is our kids’ future fundamentally,” Raj said. “We’ve had a school board that’s basically not focused on their primary job, which is to educate kids.” San Francisco had the longest COVID school closures compared to other major cities, he said.
Looijen said that parents who’ve lived through the pandemic and “crazy long Zoom school” likely won’t care whether well-heeled donors are funding the recall effort. “In fact, from what I see on Twitter,” Looijen said, “folks who are supporting us were like: ‘Billionaires want to help us out. Great! Bring them on.’”
“Money’s not the reason why we’ll win this,” added Raj, who moved to San Francisco in December 2020 and enrolled his two children in the district. “The reason we’ll win this is the school board has failed on so many levels.”
The board members facing recall would have been up for reelection in November. If voters unseat them, Mayor London Breed would appoint their replacements. “We could have just saved all this money if we had a general election,” Marckmann said.
Marckmann said she believes the recall will “disenfranchise” voters by allowing Breed to appoint board replacements. “As a parent, I should have a say, community members should have a say instead of our mayor,” she said.
Still, critics of the school board weren’t outraged only by the lack of in-person classes for stretches of 2021. They point to other controversies on the panel, including its decision to replace the merit-based admissions process for the city’s prestigious Lowell High School with a lottery, and vote to retitle schools named after historical figures linked to racism and oppression—before reversing course in face of an alumni lawsuit.
In March of last year, Collins filed an $87-million lawsuit against the district after she was fired as the board’s vice president over 2016 tweets that included racist stereotypes about Asian people. A judge dismissed her case the following August, saying it had no merit.
Collins and López have posted on Twitter about powerful interests injecting money into the battle.
“Recallers want you to believe that the roughly $2 Million that they have raised is a sign of support for their cause. I beg to differ,” Collins wrote on Sunday. “When you have this much money, throwing a few hundred thousand here or there for political or financial gain, is a drop on the bucket.”
For his part, Moliga said he’s aware some recall opponents have described the recall campaign as “a right-wing effort and a power grab” but he isn’t making that argument to voters.
“My argument is simply that I am a highly effective legislator with a strong record who has improved learning and health services for students and families, mitigated fiscal issues and taken actions that will increase enrollment in the years ahead,” Moliga said in an email. “In addition, my voting record is sound, and I have not undertaken any action that warrants immediate removal from office.”
He suggested, however, that some recall proponents could have motives for pushing out certain board members. The school district, he noted, is among the city’s major land owners.
“Much of this property is land that is very attractive to developers and people promoting the privatization of education,” Moliga said. “San Francisco voters will never elect candidates that support these values, so maybe they see this recall as a workaround to achieve their agenda. Whatever their motives, people should be curious.”
To Collins, the recall fight reflects the “culture war rhetoric” being staged at school boards across the country, as districts face clashes over how race is taught in schools.
“I think the excessive amounts of money [in the recall effort] relate to the fact that we are a very progressive city and school board, and this is an attack on that kind of progress,” Collins said.
“What can happen here in San Francisco can happen anywhere.”